England: Wyclif, Chaucer, and the Great Revolt



ON February 2 5,1308, Edward II, sixth king of the house of Plantagenet, in a solemn coronation before the hierarchy and nobility assembled in Westminster Abbey, took the oath that England proudly requires of all her sovereigns:

Archbishop of Canterbury: Sire, will you grant and keep, and by your oath confirm, to the people of England, the laws and customs to them granted by the ancient kings of England, your righteous and godly predecessors, and especially the laws, customs, and privileges granted to the clergy and people by the glorious King St. Edward your predecessor?

King: I grant them and promise.

Archbishop: Sire, will you keep toward God and Holy Church, and to clergy and people, peace and accord in God, entirely, after your power?

King: I will keep them.

Archbishop: Sire, will you cause to be done, in all your judgments, equal and right justice and discretion, in mercy and truth, to your power?

King: I will do so.

Archbishop: Sire, do you grant to hold and to keep the laws and righteous customs which the community of your realm shall have chosen, and will you defend and strengthen them to the honor of God, to the utmost of your power?

King: I grant and promise.1

Having so sworn, and being duly anointed and consecrated with holy oils, Edward II consigned the government to corrupt and incompetent hands, and devoted himself to a life of frivolity with Piers Gaveston, his Ganymede. The barons rebelled, caught and slew Gaveston (1312), and subordinated Edward and England to their feudal oligarchy. Returning in disgrace from his defeat by the Scots at Bannockburn (1314), Edward solaced himself with a new love, Hugh le Despenser III. A conspiracy of his neglected wife, Isabella of France, and her paramour, Roger de Mortimer, deposed him (1326); he was murdered in Berkeley Castle by Mortimer’s agent (1327); and his fifteen-year-old son was crowned as Edward III.

The noblest event of this age in English history was the establishment (1322) of a precedent that required the consent of a national assembly for the validity of any law. It had long been the custom of English monarchs, in their need, to summon a “King’s Council” of prominent nobles and prelates. In 1295 Edward I, warring at once with France, Scotland, and Wales, and most earnestly desirous of cash and men, instructed “every city, borough, and leading town” to send two burgesses (enfranchised citizens), and every shire or county to send two knights (minor nobles), to a national assembly that would form, with the King’s Council, the first English Parliament. The towns had money, which their delegates might be persuaded to vote to the king; the shires had yeomen (freeholders), who would make sturdy archers and pikemen; the time had come to build these forces into the structure of British government. There was no pretense at full democracy. Though the towns were—or by 1400 would be—free from feudal overlordship, the urban vote was confined to a small minority of propertied men. The nobles and clergy remained the rulers of England: they owned most of the land, employed most of the population as their tenants or serfs, and organized and directed the armed forces of the nation.

The Parliament (as it came to be called under Edward III) met in the royal palace at Westminster, across from the historic Abbey. The archbishops of Canterbury and York, the eighteen bishops, and the major abbots sat at the right of the king; half a hundred dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons sat on his left; the Prince of Wales and the King’s Council gathered near the throne; and the judges of the realm, seated on woolsacks to remind them how vital the wool trade was to England, attended to advise on points of law. At the opening of the session the burgesses and knights-later known as the Commons—stood uncovered below a bar that separated them from the prelates and lords; now for the first time (1295) the national assembly had an Upper and a Lower House. The united houses received from the king or his chancellor a pronunciatio (the later “speech from the throne”) explaining the subjects to be discussed and the appropriations desired. Then the Commons withdrew to meet in another hall—usually the chapter house of Westminster Abbey. There they debated the royal proposals. These deliberations ended, they delegated a “speaker” to report the result to the Upper House, and to present their petitions to the king. At the close of the sessions the two houses came together again to receive the reply of the sovereign, and to be dismissed by him. Only the king had the authority to summon or dissolve the Parliament,

Both houses claimed, and normally enjoyed, freedom of debate. In many cases they spoke or wrote their minds vigorously to the ruler; on several occasions, however, he had a too audacious critic jailed. In theory the powers of Parliament extended to legislation; in practice most of the statutes passed had been presented as bills by the royal ministers; but the houses often submitted recommendations and grievances, and delayed the voting of funds till some satisfaction was obtained. The only weapon of the Commons was this “power of the purse”; but as the cost of administration and the wealth of the towns grew, the power of the Commons rose. The monarchy was neither absolute nor constitutional. The king could not openly and directly change a law made by Parliament or enact a new one; but through most of the year he ruled without a Parliament to check him, and issued executive decrees that affected every department of English life. He succeeded to the throne not by election but by pedigree. His person was accounted religiously sacred; obedience and loyalty to him were inculcated with all the force of religion, custom, law, education, and ceremonious oath. If this might not suffice, the law of treason directed that a captured rebel against the state should be dragged through the streets to the gallows, should have his entrails torn out and burned before his face, and should then be hanged.2

In 1330 Edward III, eighteen, took over the government, and began one of the most eventful reigns in the history of England. “His body was comely,” says a contemporary chronicler, “and his face was like that of a god”;3 till venery weakened him he was every inch a king. He almost ignored domestic politics, being a warrior rather than a statesman; he yielded powers to Parliament amiably so long as it financed his campaigns. Through his long rule he bled France white in the effort to add her to his crown. Yet there was chivalry in him, frequent gallantry, and such treatment of the captured French King John as would have graced King Arthur’s court. After building the Round Tower of Windsor with the forced labor of 722 men, he held a Round Table there with his favorite knights; and he presided over many a chivalric joust. Froissart tells a story, unverified, of how Edward tried to seduce the lovely Countess of Salisbury, was courteously repulsed, and staged a tournament in order to feast his soul on her beauty again.4 A charming legend tells how the Countess dropped a garter while dancing at court, and how the King snatched it up from the floor, and said, Honi soit qui mal y pense—” Shame to him who evil thinks of it.” The phrase became the motto of that Order of the Garter which Edward founded toward 1349.

Alice Perrers proved less difficult than the Countess; though married, she yielded herself to the avid monarch, took large grants of land in return, and acquired such influence over him that Parliament registered a protest. Queen Philippa (says her fond pensioner Froissart) bore all this patiently, forgave him, and, on her deathbed, asked him only to fulfill her pledges to charity, and, “when it shall please God to call you hence, to choose no other sepulcher, but to lie by my side.”5 He promised “with tears in his eyes,” returned to Alice, and gave her the Queen’s jewelry.6

He waged his wars with energy, courage, and skill. War was then rated the highest and noblest work of kings; unwarlike rulers were despised, and three such in England’s history were deposed. If one may venture a slight anachronism, a natural death was a disgrace that no man could survive. Every member of the European nobility was trained to war; he could advance in possessions and power only by proficiency and bravery in arms. The people suffered from the wars but, till this reign, had rarely fought in them; their children lost the memory of the suffering, heard old knightly tales of glory, and crowned with their choicest laurels those of their kings that shed the most alien blood.

When Edward proposed to conquer France, few of his councilors dared to advise conciliation. Only when the war had dragged on through a generation, and had burdened even the rich with taxes, did the national conscience raise a cry for peace. Discontent neared revolution when Edward’s campaigns, passing from victory to failure, threatened the collapse of the nation’s economy. Till 1370 Edward had profited in war and diplomacy from the wise and loyal service of Sir John Chandos. When this hero died, his place at the head of the King’s Council was taken by Edward’s son, the Duke of Lancaster, named John of Gaunt from the Gant or Ghent where he had been born. John carelessly turned the government over to political buccaneers who fattened their purses at the public expense. Demands for reform were raised in Parliament, and men of good will prayed for the nation’s happy recovery through the King’s speedy death. Another of his sons, the Black Prince—named probably from the color of his armor—might have brought new vigor to the government, but in 1376 he passed away while the old King lingered on. The “Good Parliament” of that year enacted some reform measures, put two malfeasants in jail, ordered Alice Perrers from court, and bound the bishops to excommunicate her if she returned. After the Parliament dispersed, Edward, ignoring its decrees, restored John of Gaunt to power and Alice to the royal bed; and no bishop dared reprove her. At last the obstinate monarch consented to die (1377). A son of the Black Prince succeeded to the throne as Richard II, a lad of eleven years, amid economic and political chaos, and religious revolt.

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